“Almost nothing signifies progress more than new roads….”
By Ian Hundley
In the right time and place this sentiment would not have been the source of too much concern. If it was uttered 40 years ago, that is. However these are the words of the current leader of the federal parliamentary Liberal Party, Tony Abbott, who if the opinion polls
keep tracking the way they are, looks like becoming our prime minister sometime in 2013.
He made the observation in a speech to the federal council of the Liberal Party held in Melbourne on 30 June 2012, in which he also announced that that a federal Coalition government would spend $1.5 billion on the proposed East-West Link road tunnel in Melbourne.
The East-West Link road tunnel was a project which was not mentioned during the Victorian 2010 election campaign but in just over a year assumed the status of number one infrastructure project for the Baillieu government. So much for considered policy making.
It is a project that appeals to Tony Abbott’s and Ted Baillieu’s sense of progress. However, if it were to be built it would set back the sustainable development of Melbourne generally, and that of the CBD in particular, with the metropolis subsiding into greater car dependency as a consequence.
In his book, Battlelines (Melbourne University Press 2009), Tony Abbott declared a strong ambivalence towards public transport. This is what he had to say:
“Most people would be happy to use public transport if it went from near where they are to near where they wanted to go, quickly and regularly. On the other hand, busy people are understandably reluctant to use public transport if it means planning their day around once-an-hour bus timetables. In Australia’s big cities, public transport is generally slow, expensive, not especially reliable and still a hideous drain on the public purse. Part of the problem is inefficient, over-manned, union-dominated, government-run train and bus systems. Mostly, though, the problem is the economics of public transport in a suburban metropolis. Mostly, there just aren’t enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car, and cars need roads.”
For Tony Abbott it is “the economics” that does in public transport because he reckons the demand for public transport does not exist in Australian cities. Are there really not enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination to warrant public transport?
Well, in 2011-12, there were 536.8 million boardings on Melbourne’s public transport network, 51% greater than the 355.7 million boardings in 2001-02. This is not evidence of deficient demand for public transport in Melbourne. It’s more an indicator of substantial unmet demand for public transport services.
But Abbott is, at least, right about the supply-side. Busy people cannot be expected to plan their day around once-an-hour bus timetables. And the most recent data on boardings of Melbourne’s route bus services show this to be the case. In 2011-12, there were 123.2 million boardings of Melbourne bus services. This is a substantial increase of 15.8% on the previous year which saw just 106.1 million passenger boardings.
This is the response to relatively modest service improvements under the previous state government. Public Transport Victoria has put this down to more frequent services, extended operating hours, new routes, higher frequency SmartBuses, and university bus routes.
Those who know bus services in Melbourne understand that they are not mainstream, by and large. They have primarily been provided at trashy standards for those without any other choice in transport. It’s time for that to change.
The clear message from recent experience with the Victorian public transport system is that with much needed expansion of public transport capability there is a chance that Melbourne can be the city that it ought to be. Abbott’s ill-informed critique of public transport and his unqualified praise for roads is disturbingly nostalgic and out of step with the needs of the present day.
Tony Abbott’s predecessor as Liberal Party leader, Malcolm Turnbull, is far more in touch with reality. He got it right in a speech to the House of Representatives on September 20 when he reported on the recent Olympic Games which he attended in London. Turnbull said:
” The public transport system worked brilliantly. The Jubilee line, which is the main subway line that connects the two big sporting events—Wembley at one end and Stratford at the other—was running around 33 trains an hour, so they were running at less than two-minute intervals. The sheer efficiency of public transport was a great reminder, actually, for all of us as we consider the problems of congestion in our cities—that there is really no way to ease congestion in big cities other than by investing in mass transit, and it worked so well in London.”
We will have some of that Tony Abbott!